So we're stuck in the "why" and "how" and need to move into the "who," "what," "when," or "where." Easy to say, of course, but harder to do. One of our resolutions for 2024 is to provide free learning because gatekeeping really sucks. In my years as an educator and while doing culture work, I have regularly been faced with big, seemingly unbreakable, walls. I consider myself pretty determined (or hard headed as some like to say) and the challenges I have faced in my attempts to grow myself, my knowledge, and practice have been nearly insurmountable. It makes me think about all of the people who have other priorities, additional tasks to manage, or whatever the reason that might make it actually insurmountable.
This is part 1 of two, explaining my perspective of where we are at and where we need to go in culture work. Let's go back to the idea from last week: how can we expect people to change without support? Short answer is, we can't. If someone isn't achieving your standards then it's likely because they are unaware of your standards, the reasoning for your standards, or how to achieve your standards. We all have different perspectives and sometimes people aren't changing because they don't see the reason for it, not always because they are being malicious.
Let's start with what we know but don't agree on: the why and how.
Why not? When we talk about being equitable, inclusive, and accessible we are talking about increasing effectiveness and our reach. You are creating a better place to work, shop, and interact. You are creating a better service or product. You are opening up for more creativity and innovation. You are creating potential. There is nothing about equity, inclusion, and accessibility (when done right) that limits an organization or individual. The purpose is to create more opportunity. Research shows that workplaces that are equitable, inclusive, and accessible have higher employee well-being, lower sick days, lower levels of stress, higher employee commitment, improved decision-making, better problem-solving, higher profitability, etc. It's all good.... it's actually great. Your organization grows, the people grow, your community grows, and humanity grows (it's win, win, win, win). But of course there are reasons that people don't want it to happen or don't support it and it's important to take time to consider those, since these might be impacting buy-in at your organization.
Piece of the Pie
The piece of the pie argument has been running for a long time. People have a fear that when some people are given more (equity), it takes away from them. But that's not the case because equity is not equality. Equity means fairness and equality means the same. Let's think about it like a race. You are able bodied and quickly go through and over the obstacles – winning. The other racers are not able to complete the race because they are physically disabled. The race is unfair because the other two people cannot win. This is only equality because you are all competing in the race, not equity.
To have equity, the other two people would need to have mobility aid devices (wheelchair, etc.) or the race track would need to be modified (ramps, etc.). These changes do not guarantee that they will win and you will lose, but it does give them the opportunity to win.
If someone has the opportunity to compete in the race, this is equality. If someone has the opportunity to compete and potentially win, this is equity.
We're told to be the main character, focus on ourselves, and practice self-care, so it's only logical that we would also favour ourselves over others. The alternative is a collectivist approach, which looks at the group or community. Where you are thinking about (at home, work, sports, hobbies, in the community, etc.) might change your perspective. You might be an individualist at work but a collectivist at home. Most Western countries, including Canada and the United States have an individualist mentality/approach. This means that people approach life based on self-interest and preference. In the workplace, this could mean that someone is only focused on their career goals, reputation, awards, etc., versus the growth of their colleagues, department, or long-term organizational change.
At the root, an individualist approach is intended to break the mold while the collectivist approach means to adhere to it. But individualism is sometimes practiced in a self-centred way that realigns the spotlight and is focused on the belief that one person (themselves) is just simply better than everyone else. In culture work that can be harming because individuals play a role in the growth of others. We contribute to the well-being of others, just as other people contribute to our well-being. So, if we are all focused on ourselves and trying to centre ourselves, no one ever really "wins."
I really don't see a right or wrong when it comes to individualism or collectivism because we need both to progress. We need individuals to advocate for themselves, to be autonomous, and to be expressive, but we also need people to have interdependence and harmony. So it's less like me versus the world and more like me and the world. We need people to have the ability to focus on themselves and strive for growth, but also see and contribute to the value of collective growth and progress.
Simply put, meritocracy means that you succeed based on your effort and abilities. While this can be the case and equation of success in a lot of cases, it cannot be the limited lens by which we analyze all situations. If it is used as the sole guide towards upward mobility then people may become delusional and the "camps" become more divisive. In many cases I do think that this can be beneficial because nepotism and biases play a huge role in the mobility of people across all sectors. In my own experience, I have seen many positions and opportunities pass me by because I didn't know the right people. I also have been told a time or two that I am "over qualified." In these cases, I'd love to ride meritocracy all the way to the top.
I also advocate for forms of meritocracy to alleviate biases in hiring. I promote application processes that remove opportunities for hiring managers to use discretion to decide whether someone would be a good fit. In my experience, I know that a "good fit" means the person has similar attributes to the rest of the team, might not cause too much of a stir, and will get along with everyone. Sometimes that means hiring someone who doesn't have the best qualifications or abilities to succeed in the role.
Where meritocracy becomes a challenge is when we get into the piece of the pie conversation from an equality versus and equity lens and through the perspective of individualism. Then the idea that someone succeeds only because they want to or tried to starts to drown out conversations of systemic issues. I've heard students argue that people "can succeed if they want to," which also fuels the idea that people are limited, failing, impeded, struggling, etc., because they want to be. One of these big conversations is property ownership. While there are definitely challenges for many people to obtain property these days, many systemic issues still remain and some demographics are overrepresented in these challenges.
What creates the "why" is different for everyone but overall its because we need to progress and grow. The benefits of culture work are evident for everyone. While there are perspectives that counter culture work, these are based on the truth and reality of those people. They are valid perspectives and we have to hear and understand these points of view if we ever want to move forward together. Once we get set on that "why" then we can start to discuss the how.
There are lots of "hows" shared online and in trainings related to culture work. These range from gender neutral language to gender neutral washrooms and even gender neutral parental leaves. It also includes unlimited vacation, accessible websites, translation services, designated religious celebration days, and more. It's everything we do to support people's identities and how they are seen, heard, and valued. Some are more in-depth and planned than others, which makes it challenging for the people who are expected to enact these changes. I have worked with clients who have enacted change based on the ease level (and it's problematic). It's a lot easier to change a form to be gender neutral than to change washrooms. Sometimes this ease level creeps into training designations and frequency. If an organization already has a training day scheduled, it's easy to schedule one of the hours for culture work. Or, executives often get training over front line staff because they can walk away from their day-to-day responsibilities much easier and without a replacement.
The problem with doing the "how" this way is that there is no rhyme or reason to the process. Changes are made simply to make changes and often are made to prove that an organization is committed to culture work. This issue with this is that the inconsistency and lack of planning affects sustainability. The changes appear reckless and members of the organization don't buy in. The organization can also appear unprepared or performative (fake) to customers and the public. A plan that's all over the place shows people that the organization isn't really invested in the work, rather they are trying to silence peoples' complaints.
Organizations get themselves in these sticky situations because they give in to the demand of the public or those loud, extreme voices. "WE WANT CHANGE RIGHT NOW... IF YOU DON'T THEN YOU ARE XYZ (-isms)." Sure it's scary to have the terms racist, sexist, transphobic, etc., thrown your way but the appropriate and effective response isn't... "we are doing this, that, and the other thing by the end of the day to prove we love everyone." It might help in the immediate, but it is not an effective long-term plan because it can polarize employees, clients, and the public, which can have long-term and even bigger impacts.
So "how" do you do it then?
First you have to know what you are doing. Defining culture work for your organization is going to look different than it looks for you as an individual. Your goals will be different, your path, the resources, etc. Start by asking these questions...
- How do I define culture work? Consider what you think about the term culture and what it encompasses. In blog 3 I define culture work as IDEA (inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility), leadership development, and communication skills. It can be a lot more or a lot less. But, having a firm understanding of what you are talking about, thinking about, and learning about will help you define your goals and how you are getting there.
- How does my identity affect how I see or experience the world (your perspective and lens)? Consider how you identify in different categories of demographics, what your life experiences are, or what you are interested in or involved in. Think about how these alter your understanding of situations, topics, or the world. Question how these might be different than people who have different identities or experiences and why these might be different.
- How does my identity affect how the world sees me? There are 8+ billion people in the world who each have their own view. Consider biases, narratives, stereotypes and other forms of influence that might affect the way that people see you based on your identity. Consider if that influences how you interact with them or the type of experiences you have.
- Where am I getting my information? There is a lot of information available to us online and we can always find someone who agrees with us. Sometimes this can reinforce that what we think is true is true, even when it's not.
When you understand where you're at and how you are looking at the situation, you can better determine where to start. For example, if you didn't previously consider how your identity affects how you see the world, then you might start by exploring that more. Or, if you never considered how your source of information might influence what you think is true, then you might start by exploring that more. Our "how" is defined by where we are at right now and where we want to go. It's our plan to get there.
For your organization:
- Do we understand our why? The why for an organization might differ from an individual because you are driving your organizational growth and reach. A specific why for an organization might include a humanity case, but also have a business and education case.
- Who is defining our culture work? The people involved in development and enactment of culture work can alter how the work is being done, or what is being done at all. If there is not a diverse representation in the conversation then the view of potential issues might be limited. Think about the race... if everyone in the conversation can complete the race then the barriers that others face may never be removed.
- Do we have buy-in and how do we know? Not everyone has to agree with the why but if you don't have buy-in or commitment to the how, then the work will never be sustainable. An organization has to move forward together and that means that everyone is contributing to the change. Consider the path of influence within your organization (hint: it might not always be top-down).
- What are we valuing and prioritizing? Think about the values and mission of your organization, pillars, key projects, or strategic plan. Culture work is in everything that we do... it's about human resources, health and safety, profits, innovation, expansion, etc. But we might not have culture work effectively intertwined into these spaces, rather it might be a silo within your organization. Think about how culture work fits into all aspects and what might be valued or prioritized over it.
- What are our immediate, intermediate and long-term goals? Setting goals is important but can't be out of reach or too big. When planning goals for culture work it might be as simple as setting an organization wide definition, communicating that definition, and ensuring there are foundational supports for people to understand the organization's stance. When we look at long-term planning, that is where we see those bigger changes come to life.
- What indicates that we have achieved a goal? Metrics are sometimes difficult to apply to culture work. Consider the benefits of culture work and how that affects the organization. Look at sick days, recruitment and retention, attrition, employee engagement, etc. These are all related to culture work (and more) and can help indicate growth. It's not always about have X# women in leadership roles or X# of Black people at an organization.
Defining the how within an organization is similar to the individual - knowing where you are at. The questions are a bit different because it takes into consideration the perspectives, experiences, and contributions of everyone. It's less about control of the change and more about influencing the change and supporting people along the way.
There never will be a right why or complete how. There is no set guide to change because the problem we are trying to solve is always evolving. That is why the checkbox approach to culture work is ineffective. If we check off the box today, the box might look different tomorrow. It's about a mindset shift and the openness and willingness to listen, learn, and work together for growth.
Next week we will look at the next steps, the who, what, when, and where. This will help us better understand how different roles are involved in culture work, what culture work looks like, when it has to happen, and where we are doing it.... and no, it's not everyone, all the time, and everywhere.
Check back for Part 2 next Monday at 8am. Follow us on socials to be notified when new posts are live!
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